Inequality, scapegoating and misdirection

By Bernadette Meaden
January 16, 2017

 The report from Oxfam which shows that eight billionaires own as much wealth as half the world’s population has attracted some remarkable criticism, which has been given generous coverage by the media. Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) said, “As an ‘anti-poverty’ charity, Oxfam seem to be strangely preoccupied with the rich.”

This either completely misses the point, or denies reality. If every billionaire or big corporation were to pay the same proportion of tax as the average citizen, we could see a transformation of public services and living standards for entire populations. The only way people and companies amass such enormous wealth is by minimising the tax they pay, or by governments assisting them through not levying appropriate taxes in the first place.

Mr. Littlewood continued, “For those concerned with eradicating absolute poverty completely, the focus should be on ensuring the right institutional frameworks are in place to encourage economic growth, instead of obsessing over the wealthy.” So – don’t share the pie more fairly, just increase the size of the pie so that more people will be able to live off the crumbs.

But as Oxfam says, business fortunes are increasingly built on aggressive wage restraint and tax dodging, with wealthy owners and top executives getting an ever bigger share of the wealth created. People can work very hard and still remain poor. We can’t pursue endless growth, consume more and more of the earth’s resources, simply to perpetuate an unjust and wasteful system, where so much goes to so few. As Gandhi said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed.”

Here in the UK we are told that income inequality is falling – but we’re still the seventh most unequal country out of thirty in the OECD. Wealth is even more unequally divided than income. The richest 10 per cent of people in the UK own over half of the country's total wealth, with the top one per cent owning nearly a quarter. The poorest 20 per cent have just 0.8 per cent of the UK's wealth between them.

Tragically, many of the British people who suffer most from this inequality have been persuaded to blame foreigners for their problems. Faced with a crisis in the NHS they are told by tabloid newspapers (whose proprietors may not pay tax in the UK) to blame ‘health tourism’ or migrants. The truth is that ‘health tourism’ uses up a tiny percentage of the NHS budget, whilst migrants, who are generally young and healthy, are more likely to be treating you in A& E rather than ahead of you in the queue.

Even the poorest people in the world have become a target for this misdirection, as the foreign aid budget is targeted by tabloids as a potential way of making up the shortfall in the NHS and social care budget. At 0.7 per cent of GDP what we spend on foreign aid should not be a factor in this context, but people worried and angry about the state of public services they depend on are asked in dubious polls whether this should be cut to fund the NHS. Unsurprisingly, they say yes. They are never asked if the wealthy should pay more tax, or if Corporation Tax cuts should be reconsidered. That can of worms remains firmly shut.

The victims of inequality are diverted from thinking about economic justice by the scapegoating of even poorer people, leaving a profoundly unjust system unchallenged.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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